Check out this typical baseball rundown (you can skip to 0:21 in the video to start watching):
I say 'typical' because this is what typically happens in a youth-level rundown. A lot of throws (seven, not counting the cut-off man's initial throw). And the runner eventually is safe.
Actually, this is a little better than typical because what often happens at the pre-high school level are bad throws, not too many throws.
You might be thinking, "That's only Little League." Well, the pros are sometimes no better:
A lot of throws (five). And the runner eventually is safe.
Colorado Rockies (at least on this play) = Little League team.
Rundowns are free outs for the defense. And an unsuccessful rundown can be psychologically damaging the defense (did you see one defender on the Little League team throw down his glove when the runner eventually got to second?). And it's psychologically uplifting to the offensive team when the runner is safe (listen to the vocal reaction at the end of the Little League play above, and check out the fan & bench reaction at 0:26 and 0:36 after the runner is safe here:)
It's important to take advantage of these free outs if you're the defense. And it's not really that difficult but you will have to explain the concepts well and have the players practice it often.
The simple three-rule process
Here are the three simple rules. Please note that these rundown plays all assume that the initial fielder with the ball is pretty close to the baserunner, which is usually how a runner gets caught in a "pickle" in the first place (pitcher pickoff, runner overruns the base, etc).
[Note that this is the only thing that Little League team did right in that rundown play, when the cutoff man threw to first base so that the initial fielder with the ball for the rundown (the first baseman) is pretty close to the baserunner.]
- The initial fielder with the ball should charge hard at the runner, holding the ball up in his throwing hand.
This is your first chance to get the runner out. By running hard at the runner, you get a chance to tag the runner who likes to "dance" (i.e. juke back and forth between the bases). The "dancing" runner isn't running fast to any one base, so your fielder will be able to simply run up and tag him. Think of a cheetah trying to simply rundown its prey for dinner.
The reason the ball should be up in the throwing hand is that many youth and travel players (and some high school players, depending on how they were previously coached on this) run with the ball still in their glove. Then when it's time to make the throw, they have to reach into their glove, pull the ball out and cock the ball in a throwing position—all of which gives the runner just enough time to beat the throw. When the ball is already up in the air and in the throwing hand, the fielder has eliminated those previous three steps (reaching into the glove, pulling the ball out and cocking the ball into a throwing position). The fielder can now just throw the ball.
In both the Little League and Rockies videos, the initial fielder with the ball did not charge hard at the runner with the ball up in his throwing hand. And, they each threw the ball too soon.
- If the fielder with the ball is giving chase and is unable to rundown the runner himself and apply the tag, do not throw the ball until the runner is close to his teammate.
The biggest problem with all throws in failed rundowns—besides wild throws, of course—is that the throw is too early, which gives an alert runner ample time to stop and change directions, prolonging the rundown.
So how close is "close", or when should the throwing defender actually throw? There's not a hard-and-fast rule anywhere but a good rule-of-thumb is roughly about two or three baseball bat lengths away. Visually show this distance to your players so they know not to throw the ball until the runner is about 2-3 baseball bat lengths away. Some coaches teach that the fielder receiving the throw should yell out "Ball!" or "Now!" when he feels the runner is in the right range, and that's fine if you want to teach that. However, if your players execute rundowns properly, they should be able to do this without verbal communication because at youth and travel games, there's likely to already be a lot of commotion and yelling among all the coaches, multiple players and parents on both teams as they see the rundown happening and it may be challenging for the throwing fielder to distinguish the receiving fielder's yelling.
In both the Little League and Rockies videos, all the fielders with the ball threw the ball too early, with the runner nowhere near their receiving teammates. This allows the runner to continue to "dance" and change directions without any threat of being tagged out because the ball is always far from him.
- The teammate receiving the throw should be moving towards the runner AS he is receiving the throw.
As soon as the receiving fielder sees the throwing fielder start to throw, the receiving fielder starts moving towards the runner. This allows the teammate to build up speed and momentum by the time he catches the throw. By already being in motion towards the runner when he catches the throw—and with the runner being roughly two bat lengths away—the receiver can easily tag out the runner, even if the runner tries to dance again and go back the other way.
That's it. Three simple rules.The definitive three-step process for executing rundowns, youth to pro level Click To Tweet
By following this process, you can rundown any baserunner in one throw or less. Every time. No matter how fast or shifty the baserunner is.
[Note: As mentioned before, the 'one-throw-or-less' outcome doesn't include the initial throw that gets the runner caught in a rundown in the first place (e.g., the pitcher's pickoff throw to first base).] So when you practice this with your team, if your team has made one throw and can't get the runner out, end the play immediately to reinforce the importance of getting the runner out in one throw or less. Don't give your players a chance to argue with you, "Look, coach! We got the runner out in (two, three, four, whatever) throws!" Every extra throw your defense makes is an extra chance for the baserunner to be safe.
Things NOT to teach regarding rundowns
Here are some things I do not think you need to bother your players with regarding rundowns:
- Infield throwing lanes
In theory, this makes sense to teach your infielders to get to the inside of the basepath (the side of the basepath closest to the pitcher's mound) so your players have clear throwing lanes to each other and don't have to throw over the top of the runner's head. But shifty runners like Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison in both videos above showed how throwing lanes can be exploited to escape rundowns without running outside the baseline. By being to the inside of the fielder with the ball—instead of directly in front of the fielder—the runner can duck and dodge to the outside of the defender as the defender tries to make the tag. (BTW, this is a great concept to teach your baserunners who are caught in a pickle...if they see the defenders getting into their throwing lanes, dodge any tags to the outside.)
The other reason it's unnecessary is that the target throwing area for the throwing defender is the head/neck area of the receiving defender—in other words, a high throw. A low throw requires the receiving defender to bend over to make the catch, which could make it easier for the runner to avoid the tag. Since the receiver needs to catch the ball up high, throwing over the top of the runner's head isn't a problem—unless it's a tall runner that blocks the throwing defender's sight of the receiving defender. In that specific case, then, yes, the throwing defender should indeed move to the side to create a throwing lane.
- Following your throw to the next base
The usual teach for this coaching "rule" is that the throwing defender can now keep running toward the next base and be a receiver at that base, so the defense always ensures they have enough receivers at each base. But if we are getting the runner out in one throw or less, than having extra receivers at each base is unnecessary.
- Pump fakes
The well-intentioned thought behind this is that pump fakes may fake out the runner and cause the "dancing" runner to run back into you and thus tag himself out. Unfortunately, pump fakes also fake out the receiving teammate. If the receiving teammate is supposed to get a running head start towards the runner at the sight of the throwing defender making a throwing motion, now he's out of position and will run past the runner without having the ball. And unless you have those extra defenders at those bases, the runner will be safe. Stick to the simple three-rule process above and pump fakes will be unnecessary.
- Chasing runners back to their original base
The thought behind this common teach is that if the defense screws up, at least the runner didn't advance to the next base. In reality, though, the defense will either forget this teach during the actual rundown in a game (which means you wasted your time teaching it in practice), or they will unwittingly sacrifice an opportunity to easily get the runner out while the runner is trying to advance to the next base because they were trying to ensure the runner was going back to their original base. Don't make your kids think too much with too many unnecessary rules. With the three-rule process above, you can easily get the runner out regardless of whether the runner is going back to their original base or not.
- Receiving fielder calling for "Ball!" or "Now!"
This was discussed previously. It may be fine in an MLB environment where Cal Ripken Jr. played where coaches, fans and other players aren't all yelling simultaneously during a rundown, or maybe even in high school or college games where there isn't much attendance in the stands. But in youth and travel games that I've seen, coaches, players and parents can get really vocal during a rundown. If your local baseball environment is also typically quiet enough for throwers to hear receivers say "Ball!" or "Now!", then by all means teach it.
Here is the Boston Red Sox working on rundowns and you can clearly see that three-step process in every rundown, and every rundown is one throw or less. (Only need to watch first 1:45 of this video)
Here, you'll see the Red Sox also do not bother teaching some of the common youth baseball teaches for rundowns: chasing runners back to their original base, receiving defender calling for "Ball!", pump fakes, following your throw down to the next base, etc.
The bottom line
This three-step process is all you need. Don't overcomplicate it. This three-step process will work for any level except likely tee-ball (since many tee-ball kids don't even know how to catch or throw properly yet). Staunchly demand one throw or less. And keep practicing this until they "get it".
Finally, a note about a popular drill that even colleges do. That drill is where players are split into two lines facing each other, about 60-90 feet apart. The first person in that line runs with the ball held high while the first person in the opposite line runs toward high and receives a throw. There's nothing wrong with this drill if the players are executing it properly. But if you're going to do that, I think it's probably better to just jump straight to the Red Sox rundown drills shown in the above video because they're much more game-like than that popular drill, which will in turn make it easier for players to remember how to execute during a game.
P.S. If you'd like a printable version of this post, I've created a free three-page downloadable PDF containing the three-rule process and the things not to bother teaching.
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